It could have been so easy. A young man grows up locally, learns to cook by his mothers side, goes to Johnson & Wales University to get a degree in culinary arts, secures an internship at the Nassau Inn working with a highly respected French chef de cuisine, moves on to the Stockton Inn, marries a woman who supports his determination to have his own restaurant, starts a family, and just like that his dream comes trueñhis talent is recognized and immediately rewarded. The confidence of the menu and architecture at Bell & Whistle tell a different story, however, one that unfolds gracefully over 30 years and that has not quite reached its inevitable happy conclusion.
Jeffrey Bartlett says that he was always sure that Hopewell was the place where he would realize his ambition. Through decades of working for others as a chef and restaurant consultant, he developed menus, cooking and managerial skills, and the art of pleasing customers. But it was not until his wife Donna (who brought banking skills into the equation) introduced him to a neighbor, Jarod Machinga, seven years ago that the idea for Bell & Whistle began slowly to take shape. Machinga had already been co-owner of two eateries (Badger Bread and Taste of the Town) and owned a construction business in Hopewell. He was looking for a new venture. The two men tossed around ideas for well over a yearña chop house being one of the most enticing but the idea was eventually discarded. Once they settled on a plan of action, of course they needed to find a site, secure building funds, hire an architect, and work through the protracted permit and building process. Not so fast and not so simple, as anyone who has tried it can testify. By the time they began, they knew exactly what they wanted.
When you walk down the long, wide stone block entry from East Broad Street toward the glass, stone, and steel modern structure that houses the restaurant, it seems as if Bell &Whistle had always stood between the Hopewell Calvary Baptist Church (bells) and the fire department (whistle) behind it. But it took years for the architect, Russell DiNardo, working with Bartlett and Machinga, to perfect the vision that the group shared. Every detail is perfect from the vaulted maple ceiling with recessed lighting to the gracefully shaped olive oil cruets on your table. The goal of the architecture and the menu is to be both accessible and elegant. Even the website and lively restaurant logo echo that themeñclassy and enticing, while not being intimidating. No white tablecloths, but beautifully patterned wood where you dine, a hostess-stand at the door that echoes the shape of the graceful ceiling, and bathrooms so lovely that you wont want to miss them. Colorful oil paintings brighten the pastel-hued stone walls.
In the same vein, Bartlett characterizes the restaurants menu as innovative regional American cuisine. So, you will find familiar dishes from all around the country, but they will be dished up with a classy twist. Some good examples are Alaskan wild salmon combined with Texmati rice and served with Grand Marnier citrus butter and pineapple-jicama salsa. From the Northwest you can change direction and head over to the Midwest for a sample of St. Louis ribs with Kansas style barbecue sauce or perhaps go south for Zydeco chops with Andouille rice and a roasted corn fritter. Then there are Maryland style crab cakes, Long Island duck, and Southern fried chicken breast, each of these served with an unusual side dish. The appetizers mirror the same eclectic geography from the very popular Key Lime roasted shrimp to Southwestern quesadillas. For those who are less inclined to travel and experiment, there are staples such as Angus burgers, grilled chicken, and tomato with mozzarella sandwiches. In each case, the price point is well within reach for what you get, and you will be served by a very friendly and attentive wait staff. They are all eager to answer questions about the menu. Are thedesserts made here? Well, yes the ice cream and apple caramel blossom pastry are, but the other desserts are from Bakers Treat in Flemington. The polka dot black and white espresso cake is particularly spectacular and delicious. But so is nearly everything on the menu. The duck, which is currently served with a pomegranate molasses and mango sauce, grilled artichoke hearts, and Texmati rice, is so good that, unfortunately for the person who orders it, everyone at the table might want to take a bite.
Because the Bartletts have a young son, the couple has tried to create a setting that is comfortable for children. The menu includes hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, and individual pizzas. Perhaps kids will sample the crunchy, crispy, delectable low country oysters served with Creole mayonnaise and move on up to adult fare eventually. The restaurant is a great introduction to eating well without the pressure of very haute cuisine.
As the colder months come, Bartlett says he will introduce small savory bread puddings as sides and adjust the sauces to fit the season. You might see smoked turkey French sandwiches (a Los Angeles specialty) and a mayo-chili sauce with the salmon instead of the fruitier citrus butter. Whatever the new version is, Bartlett will not let it out of the kitchen until he is sure it is right. With the small staff of three handling the cooking, he can maintain the quality and the consistency he strives for.
The restaurant, which has only been open since early July, remains a work-in-progress. The outdoor dining area will not have seating until 2012. Starting a restaurant during a major recession and then being hit by the rainiest summer New Jersey has ever had, call for the kind of persistence Bartlett has exhibited all along. The outdoor furniture has yet to be ordered, but it will be, perhaps along with heat lamps to help in chilly spring and fall. Outdoor lighting will need to be added, but permits are required for everything. If you go to the B & W website you will, perhaps, click on and be enticed by the section that describes the Hopewell Valley wines the restaurant offers. Well, that was the hope when the website was created, but regulations have prevented the complete realization of the plan. On each side of the hostess-stand there is a fitted wine cooler waiting to be filled. Donna, who has given up her banking career to help at the restaurant and to welcome diners, as if inviting them into her home, would love to see those empty shelves filled. What will follow eventually, when the permit comes through, is staff training in pairings of food with wine and a partnership with another local business. For now, it is BYOB, with much to look forward to in 2012.
Jeffrey Bartlett uses New Jersey meats and vegetables whenever possible. He is part of a group of Hopewell restaurateurs who are friendly and helpful to each other, who are committed to the same goals, and who are collectively making the town a dining destination. Anyone who wants to eat well at a reasonable price in a friendly and elegant atmosphere should make this restaurant a destination of their own. It took about thirty years for Bartlett to perfect his dream, but you can share in it without any wait at all, provided you make a reservation.